In the jungle…
Studying animals in the lab has the advantage that observation conditions can—to some degree at least—be controlled by the researcher. This is the main strength of our experiments with captive crows in Oxford, where we probe into the cognitive capacities of these special birds (see Cognition).
There are certain questions, however, that can only be addressed by studying wild, free-ranging individuals. For example, any attempt to understand why the unusual tool-oriented behaviour evolved in the first place, and how it is maintained under present conditions, depends on data from wild crows in their natural habitat. Likewise, only careful monitoring of wild populations across the island can reveal whether these crows indeed possess a ‘culture’ of tool technology.
This is why we decided to conduct field research in addition to our work with captive crows. In a first field season in 2005/2006, Christian Rutz and Lucas Bluff spent 6 months in New Caledonia to identify suitable study sites, to establish field techniques, and to conduct pilot experiments.
During the next few years, we will lay the foundations for a long-term population study on New Caledonian crows, which will provide the ecological and evolutionary context for understanding their cognitive performance levels. Lab and fieldwork will go hand-in-hand: observations in the wild may inspire new lab experiments, and labwork in turn may highlight the need for studying particular aspects of the biology of wild crows.